Robert Lyall

Birth: 1790


Robert Lyall (1790–1831), botanist and traveller, born at Paisley in 1790, studied at Edinburgh University between 1801 and 1810, and proceeded M.D. there, but he spent some part of his early days at Manchester, studying plants, especially mushrooms. He appears to have been unsuccessful in his profession at home, although his papers on the irritability of plants, published in Nicholson's 'Journal' (vols. xxiv–viii.), 1809–11, attracted some attention among scientific botanists (cf. Royal Society's Cat. Scientific Papers).

According to his own account, he 'twice found an asylum from misfortune and passed some of the best years of his life' in the Russian empire, where he seems to have married and to have grown intimate with the czar's physician, Sir Alexander Crichton In 1815 he resided in St. Petersburg as physician to a nobleman's family, and he afterwards travelled to Kaluga with Mr. Pollaratskii. From 1816 to 1820 he was attached to the establishment of the Countess Orlof-Tchesmenska at Ostrof, sixteen miles from Moscow, in summer, and in winter at the ancient capital. In 1821 he was attending General Natschokin at Semeonovskoye, near Moscow.

From 22 April till August 1822 he travelled, in the double capacity of courier and physician, with the Marquis Pucci, Count Salazar, and Edward Penrhyn, through the Crimea, Georgia, and the southern provinces of Russia. He reached London from St. Petersburg in August 1823. While in England he published 'The Character of the Russians and a detailed History of Moscow, illustrated with numerous Engravings, with a Dissertation on the Russian Language, and an Appendix containing Tables, political, statistical, and historical, an Account of the Imperial Agricultural Society of Moscow, a Catalogue of Plants found in and near Moscow, and an Essay on the Origin and Progress of Architecture in Russia,' 4to, London and Edinburgh, 1823.

In 1825 Lyall published his 'Travels in Russia, the Krimea, the Caucasus, and Georgia,' 2 vols. 8vo, London and Edinburgh. The journal of travel included a translation of the 'Journal' of General Vermotof's embassy in 1817 to Persia, portions of which had appeared in Kotzebue's 'Voyage en Perse.' Both works, which freely exposed the corruption and immorality of the Russian nobles and officials, gave great offense at St. Petersburg. His dedication of the first book to the Emperor Alexander was disavowed by the czar through the consul in London. In 1824 Lyall replied to the 'Quarterly Review's' criticism of his first work, and published 'An Account of the Organisation, Administration, and Present State of the Military Colonies in Russia,' 1824.

In 1826 Lyall succeeded James Hastie as British agent in Madagascar. He arrived with his family at Mauritius in the summer of 1827, and, proceeding to Tamatave, was introduced to the king of Madagascar, Radama I, but he returned to his family at Port Louis in order to await the season suitable for journeying to the interior. In July 1828 he received tidings of the illness of Radama I, and hastened to Antananarivo, but did not arrive until 1 Aug., when the king was dead, and although he was received with salutes of cannon, the suspension of public business, owing to the king's death, prevented him from holding any intercourse with the Hova government. On 28 Nov. Queen Ranavalona announced her refusal to receive him as agent of the British government. The season being unfavorable for his departure, Lyall remained at the capital, botanizing and collecting objects of natural history.

In March 1829 Lyall was permitted at his own request to proceed to Tamatave, and a fortnight later (29 March) a crowd of natives, headed by the keepers of the national idol, Ramahavaly, which they carried on a pole, surrounded his dwelling. The idol-keepers emptied bagfuls of snakes in the courtyard, while Lyall and his sons were led on foot to the village of Ambohipeno, some six miles distant. There Mrs. Lyall, who was in a feeble state of health, soon joined them, and on 22 April they were all permitted to travel in palanquins to Tamatave. The Malagasy government pretended that the idol Ramahavaly had instigated the outrage to mark its disapproval of Lyall's visit to his sacred village for the purpose of collecting plants and reptiles. Lyall died at Port Louis, Mauritius, 23 May 1831 of the effects of the malarial fever common to the lowland swamps and forests of Madagascar.

Lyall was a fellow of the Linnean Society and of other scientific societies in London, Edinburgh, Manchester, and Moscow. Many of the plants collected by him in Madagascar are preserved at Kew. A list was published by Laseque. Besides the works mentioned above, he was author of 'A Treatise on Medical Evidence relative to Pregnancy as given in the Gardner Peerage Cause,' London, 1826, 2nd edit. 1827.

[Nicholson's Journal, vols. xxiv–xxviii. 1809–1811; Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers; Journal of Botany, 1889, xxvii. 311; Laseque's Plants at Kew, p. 557; Royal Soc. Catalogue, iv. 137; Ellis's History of Madagascar, ii. 396–417 et seq.; Gent. Mag. 1831, pt. ii. p. 574; Mauritius and Madagascar, Official Correspondence, 1829–32; Journals of Sir Lowry Cole, Colville, and Dr. Lyall, manuscript, 2 vols. fol. in duplicate, in Colonial Papers at the Record Office. See also Times 15 April 1824; Morning Chronicle, 3 June 1824; Courier, 3 Jan. 1824; New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, No. 24, 1 June 1824.]

Samuel Pasfield Oliver, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 34. pgs. 304-305.

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